Add Coimbra to your list! Do it, this old university city is worth a visit and should make it on to any Portuguese travel bucket list. Daniel and I spent 3 days here in June and loved exploring the city. June can be very hot though and our first 2 days hit the mid 30s, causing us to embrace the siesta and wait out the hottest part of the day. The other day was blessed with cloud and it remained cool for most of the day, making it easier to get out and explore.
Getting to Coimbra
Bus or train seem to be the main way in and out of Coimbra. We arrived but train from Porto and then caught a bus when leaving for Leiria. One of the main bus company seems to be Rede-Expressos. Through Flixbus also does some routes in Portugal. We found the transport very expensive here which was a surprise. To go a short distance, such as Coimbra to Leiria, cost the same as traveling Auckland to Wellington back home in NZ.
It all worked out fine in the end… We had a wee bit of excitement organising where we would sleep in Coimbra. As usual, we booked an Airbnb but two days before we arrived in Coimbra, I saw a message from the host saying the room was accidentally booked long term. She offered us a small attic room but I was concerned about the heat. In the end she found a friend who would have us and it turned into the best blessing.
We stayed with a lovely family, right in the centre of Coimbra. The appartment was lovely and clean and our room was very comfortable, a big change from out accommodation in Porto. It even had a balcony on with lovely views over the city, with a refreshing breeze in the evening. We made sure to eat every meal that we could here or at least have a crisp bottle of Vinho Verde in the evening.
Highlights of Coimbra
We loved our time here, though was we managed to get up to was largely impacted by the sun. The day we arrived and our first full day in Coimbra hit the mid 30s and we found it hard to do much. We did a bit of walking round and enjoying the sites, but a lot of leaning against cool walls, in the shade, enjoying the views from a small distance. This hot weather makes for wonderful warm evenings out and about seeing what the city has to offer.
Can you hear the music? The songs their singing? Look at all the joy it’s bringing. I love live music!! By complete fluke, we seemed to arrive in Coimbra during their festival and got to enjoy a huge amount of music during our visit. We also saw lots of great buskers each day as we wandered the town.
Coimbra is famed for its fado music and I saw determined to see some while we were there. This didn’t happen as we were so busy hopping between free gigs on the streets in the evenings. The Portuguese stay out late and lots of music and bars didn’t even open/start until after 11 (even more reason for sun escaping afternoon naps).
Two nights of our stay there was live jazz in the street outside of our accommodation. The band were literally set up in the middle of the street and pedestrians were either walking around them or stopping in crowds to watch. On our first night we saw the Dixie Gringos who played a wonderful set of dixie jazz. A waitress with an amazing memory wove in and out of the crowd balancing a number of empty and full glasses, remembering orders as people shouted them at her.
On the second night there was a far more interpretive jazz band and my attention span lasted less than 5 minutes. Not to worry. On the same night we also found a percussion group with 6 full drum sets playing strange, alien and erie music. It was interesting but we left when they started moaning.
Next we found a small bralizian party with traditional Brazilian music and a bake sale. Finally we stumbled upon a traditional Portuguese cultural show/celebration and another bake sale. Again, this was in the middle of a street and people were crowded around to watch. Men and woman in traditional dress danced to traditional music. I can’t say it was the most enjoyable evening of listening but it was very interesting.
Coimbra is a university city. Its campus was once a palace which the university purchased in 1597. The university has become a major tourist attraction with a number of different sections that you can pay to visit. We really enjoyed wandering around the campus, just looking at the buildings on our first (very hot) day. The main square offers beautiful views over the city and river and of the facades of the buildings surrounding it. You can then pay to gain entry to a number of different buildings within the complex. Including:
The Joanina Biblioteca (library): this library is the reason many people visit Coimbra. It is one of the oldest library in Europe. At the bottom of the library there is an old prison where unruly students who had been naughty were locked up. The second floor holds most of the books. The third floor is the real treat. It had the most amazing ceiling painted by Simões Ribeiro and Vicente Nunes, artists from Lisbon. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photos but I loved staring up at the ceiling and Daniel made a wonderful head support.
The São Miguel chapel: surprisingly we skipped a lot of churches in Coimbra. We’ve looked at a fair few on our travels but the universities chapel was definitely worth a visit. I loved the indulgent decoration of every surface. Beautiful colours and patterns covered the ceiling and walls and a gaudy Organ, covered with golden cherubs hung from a wall. I’m planning to make a dress when we’re back in New Zealand to match!
The Royal palace: Again, another beautiful selection of rooms with stunning decoration. I particularly like the ‘yellow room’, it’s walls were covered in yellow silk and the ceiling was decorated in pastals. The palace holds the most iconic rooms of the university and they are still used today for important academic ceremonies.
The science complex: this was the only part of our ticket that actually was primarily about university life. We were able to visit the old physics labs, including lecture rooms and rooms containing loads of old equipment used in experiments.
They had a chemistry lab, also with old equipment. I was very tempted to take all of the beautiful old beakers and flasks to furnish our one-day kitchen. This lab also had an interactive exhibition attached where you could learn about different phenomenon. Mostly it was just a painful reminder of everything I have forgotten since highschool. Daniel had a great time and got fabulously frustrated with my lack of understanding about total internal reflection.
The final part of the science complex is a surprisingly large natural history museum. I really enjoyed looking at all of the animals. They even had some New Zealand specimens including a kiwi, weka and moa egg.
Running, walking and hanging by the river, especially at sunset
Who doesn’t love a sunset? We got to experience a stunning sunset every night we were in Coimbra. I really enjoyed running along the riverbank paths in the evening when it was a bit cooler. Many people were out and about exercising and enjoying the evening. We spent one evening wandering along the river, taking photos in the golden light of sunset.
We really enjoyed our stop in Coimbra and would definitely recommend it to anyone traveling in Portugal. The city has fabulous history, many beautiful sights to enjoy and lots of fabulous music in the evening.
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Chloe and Daniel xx
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